I met Chris while I was a broker. As everyone knows, brokers are salesmen who happen to deal in the stock market. It is better to know nothing about the stock market and be a good salesperson than to have twenty years’ experience in the stock market and have no sales experience. The first thing the brokerage firm tells you when you are hired is to call up all your friends and get them to invest with you. Once you have gone through your list of friends, then you call your friends’ friends, and then you call the friends of your friends’ friends. When you run out of leads, start cold calling. Chris was actually the friend of a friend. Chris loved the stock market, followed it every day, and knew the ups and downs of individual stocks—the perfect candidate. My friend arranged for us to get together so we could see if I could interest him in allowing me to manager part of his portfolio. The meeting was planned at a restaurant in two weeks. Knowing Chris was a mover and a shaker, I decided to suggest some tech stocks to him, something that could move fast, make him some money, and get him to come back for more. This was back in the early 1990s when tech stocks were just beginning to hit their stride before the internet bubble blew apart all concepts of a fair return. I did my research and found three stocks I thought were going to do well over the next few years: Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Intel. All were ones with high growth potential and all would do well as the use of personal computers grew. You never know how a potential client is going to take your recommendations. They might reject a proposal because a stock was too risky, or reject the same stock because it was too safe. I remember I had pitched Cisco to a client, described how it had risen in price for several years, how its earnings were consistently growing, how their product was the backbone of the internet and how the company would grow as the internet expanded. In other words, the stock couldn’t lose, which turned out to be true. The customer was really excited about it and was ready to invest. She asked me how much it was and when I told her it was currently trading at $75, she asked me, “Don’t you have anything cheaper?” I tried to explain to her that the price didn’t matter. It was better to buy 10 shares of a stock that was going up than a 100 shares of a stock that was going down, even if the stock had a higher price, but to no avail. I had a similar problem with Chris. A couple weeks after meeting him, my friend called me back and let me know that Chris wasn’t interested in investing with me. Were my recommendations too risky? I asked. No, it wasn’t that, he replied. If anything, my recommendations were too conservative. The main issue was that my firm charged commissions that were more than he was willing to pay. I could have suggested the perfect stock to him and because of my commissions, he wouldn’t have invested with me. Now he tells me, I thought. This was the early 1990s when investing without a broker was just starting to catch on. The stock market hadn’t reached the point where people could trade on line yet; that was still a few years away, but it was close. Even brokers couldn’t trade on line yet. We still had a vacuum tube system in the office. We filled out an order to buy or sell stocks, stuck the order in a cylindrical tube (similar to the ones you put money in at the drive-through at the bank — as if any of you remember that), sent it to the operations manager who would type in the order and send it to New York. We were amazed when we got the response back through the vacuum tube system only a few minutes later. Not only was there no on-line trading, but CNBC had yet to create a near-monopoly on stock market coverage. There was no CNBC, but there was a local channel in Los Angeles that provided financial news during the morning. The channel paid for itself not only by selling commercial time, but by allowing different stock promoters to have fifteen minute programs on while the market was open and after the market had closed. Since we were in California, the market closed at 1pm, and the hour after the market close was the prime time for stock promoters. It was two hours of pump and dump before the channel turned to Spanish-language programming for the rest of the day. Most of the programs were 15 minutes long, which was about all the promoters could afford, but the one right after the close, Profits through Penny Stocks, was a 30-minute pump-and-dump show par excellence. Penny stocks appeal to gamblers, to the people who think they can outwit the market, but inevitably get outwitted themselves. A penny stock is any stock that trades for under one dollar. The stock usually has hundreds of millions of shares outstanding, but the company is worth less than a lemonade stand. Penny stocks appeal to gamblers for two reasons. First, the stocks are cheap so anyone can afford them. No one is going to ask if you have something cheaper. Since the stocks trade for ten cents or five cents, the buyer reasons, if only the stock goes up five or ten cents, I will double my money. The punters are willing to believe this because the stock used to be at five cents only a few months before, and now it is at twenty-five cents. Since the stock has already moved up five-fold, there is no reason it couldn’t move up to one dollar, or more. By following the recommendations on TV, the investor could easily make thousands of dollars, but rarely did. Second, the investor could own a lot of shares. This reinforces the illusion that the investor can make a lot of money. While it takes thousands of dollars to own just one share of Berkshire Hathaway stock, with a penny stock, the investor could buy 100,000 shares of a stock trading at five cents for only $5,000. Never mind that there are probably a hundred million shares outstanding, and the company can always issue more shares, and probably will. The whole process is psychological and has very little to do with reality. Unfortunately for the investor, the stock rarely goes up in price, it usually goes down as the promoter unloads his shares on the adoring public. When the stock price hits $0.001 or less, the company does a 1000 to one reverse split and 100,000 shares become 100 shares which trade at the price the shares originally sold for the year before. These companies don’t create value, they destroy value. Another trick of the trade is to issue warrants. A warrant allows you to buy shares at a certain price when the regular stock goes up in price. The advantage is that if the common stock goes up five-fold, the warrants can go up fifty-fold. They rarely do, but it is a good pipe dream. In 1992, Profits Through Pennies was promoting a stock called Spectrum Information Technologies which was developing a “secret” technology that would allow users to fax wirelessly, rather than being tied down to a phone line. Chris had no concept of diversification. His idea was, if the stock is going to work, then why not put everything you have into it? Why leave your money in some loser stocks when you can put all your money into one winner? The answer is that the one stock you put your money into is rarely the winner, and you risk losing everything as a result. This fact of life didn’t discourage Chris, nor did the fact that none of his previous sure things had worked out either. All Chris needed was to hit the jackpot once, and all his problems would be solved, or so he thought. Spectrum had lain dormant for several months, gradually moving up a little at a time. Chris had put his entire portfolio into Spectrum. He took what was left from his previous investments that had gone awry and put them all into Spectrum. He owned the common stock, he owned both the warrants, he owned the units. Then, by some miracle, rumors started to spread that the new technology might actually work. The stock started to go up. Chris was actually making a profit. Profits Through Pennies, which was probably more amazed than Chris at the unexpected activity in Spectrum, assured its viewers that this was the big one. Viewers needed to call up their brokerage firm and put even more money into the stock. Because Chris had lost a good portion of his initial investment in several other stocks, he had to raise capital to double up on his profits. In this, Chris left no stone unturned. He realized he could borrow cash against his credit card, and he did. He realized he could get additional credit cards to borrow against, and he did. He realized he could take out a second mortgage on his house, and he did. He wasn’t able to sell his mother into the white slave trade, but he did borrow money from her. And, of course, he bragged about his profits to his friends and got as many of them as possible to invest with him. As Spectrum started to rise in price, others began to notice. Not only did the stock start to move up rapidly, but it also fluctuated dramatically. One day it would be up twenty percent, the next day down fifteen percent. It would move up for four days, then fall for three. For the average investor, this is the worst type of stock to be in. You know it is moving on pure speculation. You know it could double or triple in price from here, or today could be the day it starts moving down for good. As a friend of mine put it, “you worry when it goes up and you worry when it goes down.” A stock like this would turn a heavy sleeper into an insomniac. Then the stock started to go nuts. The stock had been at 25 cents when I first spoke to Chris. Now it was at $1, then it moved up to $2 in one day. The warrants had gone from 5 cents to $1 and were soon in the money. The stock started trading wildly, swinging up and down on a daily basis. Then the most incredible thing happened. In one wild day in which 75 million shares traded, a record on Nasdaq, Spectrum hit $10. My friend was now a millionaire. His investment had paid off.As luck would have it, the day I spoke to Chris was the day the stock hit its peak. In two days it lost half of its value, and in a week it was back down to $2. In one week, he had made and lost over $1 million. At that point, you know the stock isn’t going to go back to its high, but you know at some point it will get a dead-cat bounce. The problem is everyone else knows this, and everyone is waiting to sell their stock to a sucker who thinks the stock will go higher than they will. The technical term for this is the “greater fool theory.” You may have been a fool to buy the stock at $2, but you hope you can find an even greater fool who will buy the stock at $3. The problem is, sometimes you’re the greater fool. The other problem with owning a large block of shares is that you have to get rid of them. It may be easy to accumulate hundreds of thousands of shares over time, but selling hundreds of thousands of shares, all at once, will only depress the price. A few weeks later new rumors started to spread that the ex-CEO of a rival technology firm was going to be hired to bring the technology into fruition. Activity picked up in the stock again, the stock rose in price, and Chris sold into the rally. Despite having lost a million dollars in paper profits, he ended up making $100,000 on his rollercoaster ride.
Spectrum Information Technologies Stock Price, 1991-1998Being the novice broker that I was, I was impressed. I called Chris up to congratulate him and see if he had sold his shares yet. As it turned out, his portfolio was now worth $1.5 million. Had he sold out? No. Why not? The stock was headed to $20 and at that point he would have $3 million. He would be set for life. What if it didn’t hit $20? It would, he promised.
But it didn’t.
But that isn’t why we called him Crazy Chris.Like any addiction, it is the thrill that keeps the person in the game. It simply isn’t possible to make a large profit and walk away forever. Making a large profit only whets the appetite for more, and now that Chris had restored his capital base through profiting on Spectrum, which a few years later went bankrupt, after a month’s vacation, he was ready for some more action. The next penny stock to be promoted on Profits through Pennies couldn’t have been more different. Yes, it was a technology stock, but it wasn’t an internet company, but one that had new railroad technology. This company was about to revolutionize an industry in a way that hadn’t occurred in over a century, Profits through Pennies promised. In fact, this stock was such a secret, its story hadn’t even reached the United States yet. The stock traded on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Now, the fact that the stock traded on the Vancouver stock Exchange would be enough to worry me. Any respectable Canadian stock traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Oil and mining stocks that couldn’t qualify for the Toronto Stock Exchange because they had no history or prospect of profits listed on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Now that technology stocks were taking the place of oil and mining stocks, Vancouver offered them an opportunity they couldn’t get anywhere else. Vancouver made Las Vegas look safe and conservative. The fact that Kelly Technologies (Keltech as they referred to it) actually traded on the Vancouver Stock Exchange was promoted as one of its selling points. Profits through Pennies promised that once people in the US discovered the stock, it would go nuts! The stock had hit twenty several years ago, but now was under $1. So why couldn’t it go up to $20 once again and surpass that? They always can return to their old highs, but they rarely do. Chris was sold on this chance of a lifetime, and he started to pour his money into Keltech. Not only did Chris take all his money from Spectrum and put it into Keltech, but he borrowed against what little equity was left in his house. Now you have to understand that since Chris owned over 100,000 shares in the company and consequently was a substantial shareholder, he felt he had the right to get information directly from the company’s president. Keltech only had a hundred or so people working for the company, and only one person in shareholder relations, so she got to know Chris pretty well. When a report was due on the new technology, Chris called her up to see how the tests had gone. A couple times, he even got to speak to the President of the company, and once he had done this, he expected to be able to talk to the President whenever he called up. Unfortunately, the tests did not go as planned and the stock started to sink in price. The stock was headed for twenty cents, not twenty dollars. As with Spectrum, Chris had researched the technology and knew all the competitors and as much information about the technology as he could understand. At first, Chris called up once a week, then as the tests failed to produce the promised results, he began to call up several times a week, pestering the shareholder representative to let him talk to the President. After all, Chris owned several hundred thousand shares, and by his reckoning, he was one of the larger shareholders in the company. During each conversation, Chris would make suggestions on how to improve the technology, how to conduct the tests, how to make “his” company more profitable. The President soon became fed up with the constant haranguing, and one day, out of exasperation, he told Chris, “Well, if you know how to do things so well, why don’t you come up here to Canada and show us how to run things?”, thinking this would put Chris in his place. Unfortunately, it did the opposite. “You probably do need my help,” Chris replied. “That isn’t a bad idea.” The President of the company was even more flabbergasted when the next month, Chris called up and gave him his travel itinerary and told him he had rented an apartment only one mile from the company’s headquarters. What the President of the company didn’t know was that Chris had sacrificed everything in his life to become rich off of this one stock. Chris had borrowed tens of thousands through his credit cards, for which he barely met the minimum payment. His house had been foreclosed upon because he had failed to make timely payments on the house’s three mortgages. His job performance was poor because he spent more time thinking about Keltech than the company he worked for, and he had lost his job. His girlfriend had left him, and now he was practically broke. Chris had lost everything except the shares he owned in Keltech. At first Chris worked for free, inspecting the technology, making suggestions, and helping where he could. To the President’s surprise, Chris actually had some good ideas, and after two weeks, the President of the company decided to hire Chris. Nevertheless, the stock continued to sink, falling not only to twenty cents, but down to ten cents. At the end of the year, the President of the company left and Chris became the new CEO of Keltech. In a little over a year, Chris had gone from not knowing about Keltech, to investing his life savings in the company, to losing everything he had, to moving to Canada, and eventually becoming President of the company in which he had unwittingly sunk his life savings. That is why we called him Crazy Chris. Chris stuck with the company for another year, but eventually left the company because the technology tests always showed new problems, and the solution always seemed one more test away. By the time he left Keltech, not only had Chris lost interest in the company, but what was even more amazing, he had lost interest in the stock market. Chris moved back to California, and got a job with a manufacturing firm. Although this was when the internet bubble was going full speed, Chris didn’t invest in anything. It was torture avoiding investing as the NASDAQ moved up to 5000, but when it crashed from there, he felt relieved. Crazy Chris wasn’t crazy anymore.
Until 1934 when the Securities and Exchange Commission outlawed rigging the market, Wall Street was occasionally treated to a battle between shorts and long that ended in a corner on the market. A stock is cornered when shorts have sold more shares in a company than are in the outstanding float, and one shareholder owns the floating stock. Since the shorts must cover their positions by buying back the shares they have borrowed, if one person owns all the shares, he can set the price and the shorts have no choice but to pay the price the owner demands.
Ryan Races to Produce RoadstersThomas Fortune Ryan, Allan A. Ryan’s father, helped his son to get his start on Wall Street. Thomas Ryan opened a brokerage firm in 1873 and bought a seat on the NYSE in 1874. Ryan made his fortune by consolidating public transportation in New York City, amassing personal wealth estimated at $50 million in the process. Ryan built the Metropolitan Traction Company out of street railroads that ran through New York City. Ryan also formed the Union Tobacco Co. in 1898 which consolidated with James Duke to form the American Tobacco Co. Together, Ryan and Duke developed the British-American Tobacco Co. to protect their American tobacco interests. Ryan also owned Royal Typewriter and backed the maker of the Thompson submachine gun. At the time of his death in 1928, Ryan’s fortune was estimated at over $150 million, making him the tenth wealthiest man in the United States. Thomas Ryan tutored his son, Allan Aloysious in the intricacies of finance and in 1905, when he was 25, he turned over his seat on the NYSE to his son. Three years later, Charles M. Schwab, first chairman of U.S. Steel, befriended Allan Ryan after Ryan’s father introduced him to Schwab. His son formed a brokerage firm, Allan A. Ryan & Co. The stock market boomed after America’s entry into World War I in 1917, with the DJIA almost doubling in price by October 1919. Ryan was one of the primary bulls on the exchange and enjoyed profiting from squeezing the shorts. Ryan also invested in the Stutz Motor Car Co. of America, Inc. which he gained a controlling interest in and became president of in 1916. The company was incorporated in New York and took control of the Stutz Motor Car Co. of Indiana. Stutz Motor Car Co. was most famous for making the Bearcat at its factory in Indianapolis, an expensive and high-performing roadster which became synonymous with the roaring twenties. While a Model T cost $500 in the 1920s, a Stutz Bearcat cost $2000. Stutz stock participated in the bull market rally, moving up from 40 at the end of 1918 to 144.875 in October 1919. The DJIA peaked at 118.63 on November 1, 1919, as inflation cut into post-war demand, but Stutz stock remained strong in the face of the post-war bear market. On February 28, 1919, the DJIA hit 91.31, a 23% decline from the top and by definition, a bear market. Nevertheless, the bear market still had strength left in it.
The Bear Raid BeginsRyan interpreted the decline in his stock as a bear raid designed to push the price of Stutz down so the shorts could profit from the decline in the stock. In March 1919 Stutz stock diverged from the rest of the market, making a spectacular rise. The stock had closed February at 110, but by March 23, the stock was at 245, on the March 24 it was at 282 and by the end of March, the stock stood at 391.
The Shorts Are CorneredSince Ryan was the sole lender, he knew who the borrowers were, and he knew they were primarily fellow members of the NYSE, including members of the Exchange’s Board of Governors. The men he worked with on the floor on a daily basis were shorting his company’s stock, trying to ruin him financially. During the week ending March 27, Stutz stock moved up from 220 to 318 on 73,900 shares. Stutz stock closed at 329 on March 29, at 370 on March 30 and at 391 on March 31 when only 930 shares were traded because no stock was available. The shorts had clearly underestimated Ryan’s resolve. Ryan was called before the Exchange’s Business Conduct Committee on March 31 to explain the wild gyrations in Stutz stock. As The New York Times put it, It was clear enough before noon that offerings of the stock had practically disappeared and the Governors acted through a moratorium to protect those speculators who had worked themselves into this untenable position. A single group was found to own more stock and contracts for delivery of stock than the full outstanding Stutz shares. The ruling prevents Stock Exchange members from participating in further dealings in Stutz stock until the ban is lifted. Ryan told the Committee that he would settle with the shorts, some of whom were on the Committee he faced, and allow the shorts to fulfill their contracts at $750 a share. The offer probably made the shorts sick to their stomachs. Ryan knew there were more shares short than there were shares outstanding, and that he owned all the outstanding shares. Ryan could have asked $1000 or $5000 per share. The shorts had put themselves in this position, and they had only themselves to blame. Ryan had cornered Stutz stock, and he wanted the shorts to pay for their bear raid. The shorts in the Northern Pacific corner had paid the price that Harriman had set, so why shouldn’t Ryan set the price for Stutz stock and force the shorts to pay up?
The NYSE Tips the ScalesRyan may have cornered the stock, but the shorts were determined to use their power in the NYSE to destroy Ryan and save their skin. The Committee threatened to strike Stutz from the stock exchange list, and Ryan responded by threatening to demand $1000 a share. Nevertheless, the NYSE decided to suspend all trading in Stutz stock. When a reporter said there was no precedent or rule for the suspension of trading in shares, a NYSE spokesman replied, “The Exchange can do anything.” On April 5 came the most amazing announcement of all when the Law Committee of the NYSE announced, “The Exchange will not treat failure to deliver Stutz Motor stock, due to inability of the contracting party to obtain same, as a failure to comply with his contract.” Essentially, the NYSE sanctioned breach of contract by the shorts, putting them under no legal obligation to cover their shorts. The NYSE told Ryan he was free to challenge their ruling in court. In response, Ryan demanded that the NYSE obtain a settlement price for all the shorts to avoid the trouble of Ryan having to negotiate with each of the shorts. When nations don’t agree, they go to war; when companies don’t agree, they call in the lawyers and go to court. The shorts hired the Dos Passos Brothers, who were the leading experts on stock exchange law. John Randolph Dos Passos had written the standard work on stock exchange law, Treatise on the Law of Stock Brokers and Stock Exchanges in 1882, and had rigorously opposed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in his book, Commercial Trust, written in 1901. His son, John Roderigo Dos Passos, later wrote his socialist trilogy, U.S.A. in rebellion against his father’s defense of capitalism. Interestingly enough, by the 1950s, Dos Passos had changed his political views dramatically and campaigned for both Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Ryan hired the firm of Stanchfield & Levy, the lesser firm in this David vs. Goliath battle. Realizing it was Ryan vs. the NYSE, Ryan resigned his seat in the NYSE because he felt the Exchange was changing the rules to benefit the shorts. Ryan’s resignation freed him to act independently. He was no longer bound by the NYSE’s restriction on members selling shares since he was no longer a member of the Exchange. Ryan gave a reporter of the New York World the names of the NYSE governors, some of whom were on the committees that had sat in judgment on Ryan, whom he said were caught short in Stutz stock. The obvious conflict of interest led some to demand that the NYSE come under state or federal regulation, something members of the NYSE definitely wanted to avoid. The NYSE backed down from their position that shorts could violate their contracts and left the resolution of the issue up to Ryan and the shorts. On April 20, the protective committee capitulated and said they were ready to accept impartial mediation on a negotiated settlement price between Ryan and the shorts. There were 56 firms that held shares short in Stutz involving 5500 shares. On the other hand, the banks that had loaned Ryan millions to defend Stutz stock also became involved to insure there were sufficient funds for Ryan to repay his loans. Negotiations dragged on for several days and with no resolution, Ryan indicated that he planned to buy in all the stock on April 24, a Saturday, on the Curb Stock Exchange which operated literally on the curb of the New York Stock Exchange on Broad Street. Traders on the Curb didn’t move into their own building until 1921 when the New York Curb Exchange Building was built on Greenwich Street. Brokers made trades on the street in the open air, then signaled to the clerks in the office windows above to carry out their trades. This was where the High Noon shoot-out between Ryan and the shorts was to take place.
High Noon on the CurbHundreds showed up that Saturday morning just for the spectacle of seeing Ryan place his order to close out his position on the shorts. Colonel John W. Prentiss, who had become the principal spokesman for the shorts, said they should come to terms with Ryan before the Curb opened for its half-day of operations that Saturday. The shorts agreed to act in unison, and slips of paper were passed around where the shorts could write down what they thought would be an appropriate settlement figure. Prentiss then took the average of the numbers that had been written down. A delegation went to the office of Allan A. Ryan & Co. at 111 Broadway, arriving at nine-forty A.M. The delegation offered Ryan $550 per share, which Ryan unhesitatingly accepted, and at two minutes before ten, Colonel Prentiss announced to reporters that the Stutz matter had been settled at $550 per share. Everyone was happy except the spectators on Broad Street who were deprived of viewing the showdown. This appeared to be a great victory for Ryan since he had made almost $1.5 million in the transactions and remained the sole owner of Stutz Motor Co., and was worth, on paper, over $100 million. Unfortunately, for Ryan, this was a Pyrrhic victory. Ryan still owed millions to the banks, and the only way he could raise the money to cover his debts was by selling shares in Stutz Motor Co. With trading in Stutz stock still suspended on the NYSE, Ryan lacked a liquid market to sell large blocks of shares to the public. Unless he could raise sufficient funds to cover his loans, Ryan could become bankrupt.
Ryan’s Victory Ends in BankruptcyThough defeated, the shorts were still determined to have their pound of flesh. The NYSE refused to accept Ryan’s resignation from the Exchange, and the Board of Governors adopted a resolution saying Ryan’s conduct had been “inconsistent with just and equitable principles of trade;” because he had created “an arbitrary and fictitious price” for Stutz stock. Ryan was called to appear at a closed hearing at the NYSE to defend his actions. Ryan refused to appear before the “star chamber” and he was tried in abstentia. Ryan was found guilty as charged and was voted unanimously to be expulsed from the NYSE. The NYSE sold his seat in July 1920 for $98,000, but by November, the Exchange was still withholding the proceeds from Ryan on a technicality. Ryan’s main problem remained the banks he had borrowed from who were pressing him for their money. The stock market had continued to decline and the prices of the other companies Ryan owned shares in, Stromberg Carburetor, Continental Candy, Chicago Pneumatic Tool, and Hayden Chemical, were falling in price dramatically. By November, Ryan was “cleaned out” and Ryan’s creditors turned to the Guaranty Trust Company, of which Ryan’s father was the largest shareholder, to see if his father would support Ryan. Unfortunately, Ryan and his son had been at odds for several years, and Ryan showed no interest in helping his son. In November the banks formed a committee to take charge of Ryan’s affairs. Ryan fought a losing battle until he was forced to declare bankruptcy on July 21, 1922. It turned out that Ryan owed over $1 million to Harry Payne Whitney, son of his father’s old partner, about $3.5 million to the Chase National Bank and $8.66 million to the Guaranty Trust Co. Ryan’s salvation lay in the shares he owned in Stutz Motor Co., which were to be sold at auction. A lawyer for Guaranty Trust estimated that if Stutz stock sold above $60, Ryan would probably be able to cover his debts and avoid bankruptcy. Stutz stock traded on the Curb, since it was not permitted to trade on the NYSE, and the stock had fallen in price dramatically in the intervening two years. The stock, which had been at $180 at the end of 1920, had fallen to $50 at the end of 1921 and was trading at $15 when Stutz declared bankruptcy.
Stutz Motor Co. of America, Inc. Stock Price, 1918-1925In the auction, Stutz’s holdings were sold at $20 a share to Charles A. Schwab, his erstwhile mentor. Schwab failed to turn Stutz Motor Co. into a profitable enterprise, despite the popularity of the Bearcat automobile. In December 1930, the company had to institute a 1-for-10 reverse split, and in 1932, the company was reduced to making grocery-delivery vans rather than luxury cars and roadsters. The company went bankrupt in 1938.
Everyone is aware of the incredible returns that Berkshire Hathaway has provided shareholders during the past fifty years that Warren Buffet has run the company. In the late 1960s, when Warren Buffett became CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, shares in the company were trading at under $20. Today, shares trade around $200,000. During the same period of time, the S&P 500 Total Return Index went from around 38 to 3800. While the S&P 500 increased 100-fold, Berkshire Hathaway increased 10,000-fold. That is what I call value added. But how well did Berkshire Hathaway perform before Warren Buffett took over the company? Had the company performed well even before Warren Buffett took over, or did Buffett change the company’s performance dramatically?
Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates is FormedBerkshire Fine Spinning Associates Inc. incorporated under Massachusetts laws in 1929 as a consolidation of Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Co., Valley Falls Co., Coventry Co., the Greylock Mills, and Fort Dummer Mills. The company changed its name to Berkshire Hathaway in 1955 when it acquired Hathaway Manufacturing Co. Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates Inc. manufactured fine grades of cotton textiles and specialized in fine lawns, batistes, nainsooks, organdies, dimities, handkerchief cloths, broadcloths, oxfords, sateens, rayon and silk mixtures. Plants were located in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Berkshire offered 33,000 shares of common stock in 1929 at $40 per share as well as 4,860 shares of 7% Preferred stock, also at $40 per share. Unfortunately, the shares were offered in the middle of the 1929 bull market, and the share price collapsed soon after. In November 1929, the ask price for Berkshire stock was still at $40, but in November of 1931, shares sank to $0.50. Sales for the company declined and Berkshire ran losses until 1936. As late as 1940, shares traded as low as $3, but profits and the share price picked up with the war. Berkshire did well enough that it was able to reinitiate a regular dividend in 1942 (the dividend had been suspended in March 1930), and in September 1947, the company had a 3-for-1 split. Of course, the split marked the high mark for Berkshire and the stock began a downward trend that lasted until 1962. The graph below shows the performance of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. stock from 1929 until 1967 when Warren Buffett took over the company. As you can see, there was little change in the stock price in the forty years before then. Berkshire lost money between 1930 and 1936, and it lost money in 1957, 1958 and 1961 to 1963. Despite the fact that sales had tripled between the 1930s and the 1960s, there was no comparable increase in profits. In 1963, Berkshire stock was still trading below the price it had been offered at in 1929!
Buffet Buys BerkshireBuffett began buying shares in Berkshire Hathaway at less than $8 in 1962 and by 1966, Buffett and his partners had taken over the company.As soon as Buffett took over Berkshire, he began focusing on insurance and other businesses rather than textiles. Buffett had invested in American Express when Anthony de Angelis’s fraud caused the price of American Express to drop dramatically in 1964. In the 1970s, Buffett expanded his investments to include media companies (The Washington Post and ABC) as well as other companies that fit his investment criteria. The final Berkshire mill was closed down in 1985.